When I did autopsies as a forensic pathologist in the mid-70s my “volume” was turned down. It seemed the nature of the business. As a result, the gore and mayhem on and off the streets of Baltimore had less impact on me.
The stench of recently deceased alcoholics permeated the Baltimore autopsy room frequently. It was a place most people were not eager to enter.
The horrific was not uncommon in California’s Ventura County in 1978 either. At least on the surface, I was somewhat desensitized.
However after several years in forensics, I went on to a clinical laboratory in 1979. A clinical laboratory is a lab that measures various substances in human, blood, urine, etc. for the benefit of patient care.
The lab was considering expanding its efforts into forensic pathology. I was asked to give the marketing group the same forensic pathology lecture I had given for several years. It was replete with projected slides. Many of the slides were ghastly enough to upset a glass eating mob of skinheads on Harley Davidsons.
I gave the presentation. My stomach began to churn. My record of professional, continuous calm innards for several years was coming to a close. I was composed but with difficulty.
My “volume,” or sensitivity had been re-expanded in the clinical lab experience. I was practicing medicine in a far less gruesome environment.
Nausea aside, it was good to be among the living. The patients actually were breathing and had a pulse.
Rather than working in a morgue a few blocks from Edgar Allan Poe’s grave-site, I was in Steinbeck’s California with outgoing fellow employees and patients who made eye contact.
Even with my volume down in the spring of 1977 in Baltimore, some things just got through. There was a lot I could easily soak up with Kristine and her folks. I was the recipient of a lot of good signals.
On our first date, unlike anyone I had ever dated, Kris could actually play tennis. It wasn’t something to cater to a man. It was a sport she had enjoyed most of her life. Even in my condition that skill and passion for the game got through my thick skull.
Peter Berger a sociologist of knowledge looked at the value of play in his book, Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. He wrote as follows:
“Joyful play appears to suspend, or bracket, the reality of our “living towards death” (as Heidegger aptly described our “serious” condition). It is this curious quality, which belongs to all joyful play, that explains the liberation and peace such play provides. In early childhood, of course, the suspension is unconscious, since there is as yet no consciousness of death. In later life play brings about a beatific reiteration of childhood. When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.”
What a gift from God, particularly in my morbid profession.
On our second date we traveled from Baltimore to Washington DC for a tennis tournament. On the trip home we surprised her parents in suburban Washington. Her dad, Fred, was reminiscent of my favorite grandparent, Isadore. Kris has noted since their similar physical appearance.
Like grandpa he was warm and easy to get to know. I quickly felt like we were old friends. We drove off to pick up the Chinese dinner he had ordered, a trip filled with smiles and laughter.
I had landed on more joyous ground. It all got through my layer of insensitivity. It was like OVERCOMING The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner per the title of Alan Sillitoe’s short story and the movie it generated.
Her mom was lovely with a keen eye for the beautiful. The home’s interior was filled with beautiful antiques and modern furniture arranged thoughtfully. I discovered on daylight visits to their home that the back of their house, notable as one entered, was glass with a view of the picturesque trees and gardens in the backyard.
I would have to have been dead and buried, like all of my “patients,” to have missed the effect of what I had walked into out of the blue. According to Max Lerner, “The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt.” Despite retreating from the living in my work, I recognized the goodness and joy in Kris and her family. Thank God I got the message.